"Firstly, the suggestion that one shouldn’t use anachronistic categories is in many ways ridiculous. If you discuss proto-Indo-European, the Roman upper classes, the Carolingian economy, medieval anti-semitism or whether King Alfred had Crohn’s disease, you’re using an anachronistic category, in the sense of a concept that didn’t exist at the historical period under discussion. The question is whether a modern category is actually useful for a discussion of a particular historical period, whether it can be defined in a way that makes sense. I think it may be true that ‘homosexual’ is not a useful category for dealing with the Middle Ages, but that isn’t the main category that Boswell actually used. What Boswell talked about was ‘gays’, and he had a simple definition of them: people with an erotic preference for their own sex. (In CSTH he made this ‘conscious preference’, but later removed the qualifier).”
I think the money quote from this very good post is actually this one:
But such a refusal needs to be handled very carefully, because it’s not symmetric. If you say there are no ‘heterosexuals’ in the Middle Ages, everyone will realise you’re making a particular theoretical point, not talking about actual desires. If you say there are no ‘homosexuals’, it all too easily implies that there were no gays (in Boswell’s sense).
It’s why I’ve taken to framing the issue of same-sex attraction in the middle ages in exactly that way — that the concept of heterosexuality as a category of sexual identity didn’t really exist back then, and that it was considered the invisible default and a type of desire and preference everyone naturally had. While the fact that some people preferred their own sex was certainly recognized — there’s a reference to it in e.g. Marie de France’s Lanval, probably written c. 1170 — it’s probably safest to say that the medieval understanding of sexuality held that same-sex attraction wasn’t something that only happened to those people, that it was theoretically a temptation for anyone (this is for instance the general attitude of Alain of Lille’s Pleint de Nature, a really weird homophobic screed in which a personified Nature complains that Teh Gays are ruining everything, and phrases it in terms of grammar. Rebuttals to this text had a lot of fun with the grammatical aspect of things, since Latin grammar is in fact founded on same-gender attraction). Obviously there are still people who think this way today, but I think it’s getting to be less and less the default, and in general I think people recognize the “if it were legal/accepted, everyone would do it and THEN WHERE WOULD WE BE” type of argument as pretty fringey.
For the most part I think the argument Jaeger makes as cited in the post — that behaviors that look homoerotic to the modern eye might not have had the same connotations in the middle ages — is probably best to keep in mind when we’re talking about individuals. It’s always very difficult to determine conclusively whether someone hundreds of years ago was gay or bisexual, on the grounds that there was a wider range of emotional expressions available between same-sex friends and that explicit references to people having same-sex relationships are invariably meant to be disparaging. But on the other hand one also doesn’t want to give the impression that there weren’t any queer people back then, because of course there were.
Reblogging both for historical homosexuality and for the discussion about the necessity of using modern concepts/categories when dealing with history.